Arts & Culture

Vivian Gornick takes on novelists Bellow, Roth

6 min read

Assails writers for ‘angry fever’ directed at women

In 1976, Vivian Gornick wrote an essay on the brilliance (literary) and the failings (cultural) of male Jewish American writers — among them Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth.

“Why Do These Men Hate Women?” came at a time when Second Wave feminism was beginning to clash with the sensibilities of older writers, all men, she said, who playfully (or viciously) denigrated the Other Sex.

Bellow and the others, Gornick wrote, have “an infantile preoccupation with themselves … [they are] men who hate and fear the moment in which they are living, men who are in flight from their time … filled with conservative longing. …”

This year, Gornick — a writer who lives in New York City — is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She updated her observations of three decades ago on Feb. 4 in the Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in Art and the Humanities.

Animated and precise, she delivered “Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and the End of the Jew as Metaphor” to a capacity crowd of over 200. The lecture will appear this fall in a collection of essays Gornick has wryly titled “The Men in My Life.”

Both writers, she said, wrote with “an angry fever” that broke Jewishness out of the confines of an immigrant literature that was lyrical and revealing, but also tempered and self-limiting. Both men had a “compulsive brilliance,” and a nastiness to match, said Gornick — qualities they employed freely to explode the literary conventions of the time (and to alienate feminists). “So much influential prose,” she said, “so little empathy.”

Nobel laureate Bellow (who died in 2005) and Pulitzer Prize winner Roth (who continues to write prolifically), however, performed a service beyond impressing generations of audiences. Their breakthrough reinvention of American English, filtered through a streetwise urban Jewish sensibility, drew a line in the literary sand.

On one side is the past — books like 1920’s “Hungry Hearts,” a collection of stories by Anzia Yezierska that embodied “the idea of an inner life thwarted by self and the world,” said Gornick.

On the other side are the barely filtered “declarations of insult and injury” offered up by Bellow and Roth — and seemingly driven, Gornick opined, by an anger at the women in their lives. (Both writers, she suggests, left little imaginative space between author and narrator.)

But, said Gornick, there were bridges between these two literary worlds — pathways that link the early circumspect expression of the Jewish immigrant experience with the later, wildly unembarrassed, articulation of a younger generation.

One such mediator between worlds, said Gornick, was poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz, who loved “the sound of the street,” but who read “Eliot and Pound before breakfast every morning.” (His time at Harvard in the 1940s, she said, caused Schwartz to both revere Cambridge’s literary Brahmins, but also to light up with “a frantic display of urban Jewish smarts.”)

That frantic display was the harbinger of Bellow, Roth, and others who — for a time — put the Jew on center stage in American culture. Also prefiguring Bellow and Roth was Jerome Weidman’s 1937 “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” featuring the zippy mercantile predator Harry Bogen. And there was Budd Schulberg’s 1941 “What Makes Sammy Run.” With its Lower East Side Jewish voice, said Gornick, “working its way into the reader’s ear like a plumber’s snake.”

In 1949, 34-year-old Saul Bellow, living in Paris, already had two novels behind him — and was stuck in the sand until he decided to relive in fiction the streets of his native Chicago, in what became 1953’s “The Adventures of Augie March.”

“An urge to describe that long-ago life overcame him,” said Gornick of Bellow — and with it came a novel language that was part “immigrant-speak, tabloid writing, public school.” It went against “the spiritual exhaustion” of the literature of the time, she said.

But “Augie March” also prefigured a tendency toward literary misogyny later libidinously executed by Roth. Augie March fled the ghetto, said Gornick, but left behind “an inability to love reliably.”

A “universe of monumental angst” flowed from Bellow’s pen, she said, leaving out any trace of tenderness. “Herzog” stands out as the “pivotal novel … a frenzy of spiritual homelessness,” said Gornick, which featured Herzog’s wife as “the object of some of the most talented misanthropy” in literary history. Women had become malevolent, she said, and “agents of moral threat.” In Bellow’s words, women “eat green salad and drink human blood.”

The younger Philip Roth followed Bellow like “the son arrived to work the father’s ground,” said Gornick — bringing with him a literary misogyny that was like “lava pouring out of an active volcano.”

In fairness, she pointed out, Bellow’s own energetic misogyny was “a grievance absent from [an] earlier world” of his fiction. Roth, too, had to grow into his anger at women. In the novella “Goodbye Columbus,” after all, Neil Klugman only engages in “affectionate mockery” of his love, Brenda Patimkin.

Then along came Sophie Portnoy and the disappearance of tenderness in Roth, whose main power plant of literary energy, Gornick asserted, became a sexually feverish hatred of women. (Talking about 1969’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” she quoted some of Roth’s libidinous wrath; for a few moments, the air in the sedate Radcliffe Gymnasium turned blue.)

It was “a novel of its time,” said Gornick, coming “at the end of the outlaw ‘60s.” Roth’s comedic brilliance deepened “anger, not hope,” she said. But it was also an expression of a final break from what Gornick called immigrant literature. “The snarling itself,” she said, “after generations of passivity, feels good.”

But as Bellow and Roth rose, they also fell, said Gornick. Roth, for one, “was doomed to repeat language that glowed in the dark,” she said, directing much of his toxicity to women. By the late 1980s, Gornick averred, Roth’s shtick — the “omnivorous self-preservation” of his literary voice — became wearisome to readers.

Roth’s “American Pastoral” (1997) marked “an unceremonious close” to American-Jewish writing, Gornick argued. “The brilliant fever” of this literary subculture, she said, was “losing energy.”

Gornick ended with a hope: that “yesterday’s savage brilliance … will not translate into tomorrow’s wisdom.”